Saturday Doubleheader

It was a musical doubleheader in New York for me last Saturday as I attended both the Met matinee and the NY Phil in the evening.

I am not a big Puccini fan, (even though I cry at Bohème) but I was very impressed by Fanciulla, the last performance of the run at the Met. This was a strong cast, especially Deborah Voigt.  She sounded great, singing with both power and beauty of sound. The range of expressive types Minnie has to project is remarkable: she is playful, steely, vulnerable, kind, heroic, and Voigt conveyed them all. The theme of the piece is Wagnerian – a man redeemed through a woman’s love – but this time the woman survives to get her man, not just redeem him. Alex Ross smartly observes how Minnie beats the men in the piece at their own games (both literally – a poker game – and figuratively) “and then breaks down their macho codes”. The first and third acts end in a remarkably low key manner, with the ambiguities of the final curtain nicely summarized in the figure of the sheriff, left alone on stage, handling a gun, still wanting to kill the tenor, but unable to move. Ross found fault with the production, and it is on the literal side, at once a bit stiff and very busy. Voigt remarks in an interview how she has to handle tons of props in this staging. She seems to spend a long time in the first act putting away whiskey glasses. I suppose this is necessary given the amount of drinking that goes on – per capita at about at the level of an Albee play.

In the evening I heard two men named Thomas – Hampson’s Kindertotenlieder was deeply affecting, and Adés played his piano concerto with video, a collaboration with Tal Rosner. I am an Adés fan, but I was not consistently held by this piece. Anthony Tommasini’s review makes the music sound much more varied than it seemed to me. Too much of the work involved streams of regular durations, often layered against similar streams moving at slightly different speeds, but still lacking in sufficiently characterized rhythmic profile. Still, there was much to admire when the rhythms were less static. I found the video was at its most compelling when most dense, with various geometric patterns intricately overlaid. However, there were also brief moments that were dangerously close to screensaver images, or the visualizer in iTunes, or even the abstractions that accompany the Bach toccata and fugue in Disney’s Fantasia.  I appreciated the fact that the music and image were closely coordinated. I always hated the way the jump cuts from frantic activity to stasis in the Godfrey Reggio/Philip Glass collaboration Koyaanisqatsi are not quite in sync, but that is not the case here.

Update: hear the Adés on Instant Encore here.

Thursday night miscellany

-info on the Philly version of the Bang on a Can marathon here. Lots of great stuff, laudibly diverse programming – though not as diverse as the press releases might make you think. Fact is, the early iterations of the NYC version even included Babbitt and Davidovsky –  since excluded; and midtown work has, in general, never been welcome. But, again, there is much here to enjoy, and I applaud the Philly-centric inclusion of Uri Caine and the Sun Ra Arkestra. How about more Philly composers – and genuine stylistic diversity – next time?

-Anthony Tommasini on great moments in Sondheim.

-current (and upcoming) playlist:

(Iverson on Jasmine, and on Hank Jones)


Anthony Tommasini’s Arts and Leisure essay in the Times today speaks about the end of dogma in programming new music, citing an evening by the Ensemble ACJW at Poisson Rouge to make the case.  Tommasini mentions the stylistic debates that dominated the lunch table during his time as a student at Yale, but it is not news that those arguments have quieted down.

More interesting to me in the article is the staying power of the high modernist composers that everybody is supposed to hate (the article mentions Babbitt and Davidovsky among others). It turns out that the music is less about compositional ideology (Davidovsky in particular is the most asystematic of uptown composers) and more about – among other things – a celebration of virtuosity. Since a performer is always happy to play something that makes him/her sound brilliant, it is not surprising that Ensemble ACJW would program Davidovsky’s Synchronisms #9 or that the Jack Quartet would advocate for Xenakis, or that the superb violinist Miranda Cuckson would issue first-rate discs of music by Shapey and Martino (about which more in a future post).

The other point of interest for me is one that Tommasini makes, but then backs away from as a “passing worry for now”, and this is the problem of the neglected “notes and rhythms” composer, to use the playful phrase of John Harbison that the article quotes. Tommasini mentions Hartke, Stucky, Rouse, Melinda Wagner, Currier, and Tower as (quasi-)mainstream  voices that may be “slipping from the view of young musicians and audiences”. (I say “quasi-mainstream” because “mainstream” is a pretty vexed concept today. Also, check the composer links at right if you want to add more names to the list.) Part of the problem here is that these composers offer journalists or publicists little on which to hang a story – nothing about identity politics, technology or violent rebellion against mentors – merely excellent music.  (The exception on that list being Sebastian Currier, whose impressive use of multimedia has not yet received the recognition it deserves.) If these composers are “slipping from view”, it is because their pieces all too often “slip away” after the premiere – the problem of the 2nd performance that I wrote about earlier. This is not a “someday” problem, as Tommasini suggests; rather, it is a problem now. Shouldn’t there be a dozen flutists planning to play Melinda Wagner’s Flute Concerto? Shouldn’t there be young groups touring with the string quartets of Harbison or Currier? In a healthier musical climate, repeated performances would mean the merely excellent would remain squarely before us instead of slipping from view.